I’m with Pinker

I critiqued Steven Pinker several times in Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption; Pinker is an epistemological extremist, in my unaccredited opinion, someone who places far too much faith in empirical method.

But I can’t help but like the guy when he talks about the English language—and when he talks: he’s got a precise, Canadian-inflected way of speaking that I like. (I would like him better if he let me on the AHD usage panel, but ah well…) And he understands that the “rules” of English are determined collectively by its speakers, not by the grammarians who complain the loudest.

So when a friend sent me this attack on Pinker’s view of language by Nathan Heller, my dander began to get up and move around. I tried to tamp it down, but that only made it fly around more wildly. To make matters worse, Heller has the gall to make a living as a writer. At the New Yorker of all places. He insisted that Pinker was too laissez faire about our mother tongue, that there is something called “correct English” that people should observe. Or is it which people should observe? Heller says he knows. He says the rest of us could learn if only we truly cared about language like him, if only we plebeians would get our linguistic act together.

But my dander is still very much up. I will submit to my God-given authorities, but not to grammar rules that somebody made up for no good reason in 1888. I say the people must rise up, along with my dander, and get our language back from the self-appointed Grammar Nazis! The “rules” Heller invokes are oppressive. (How often does a BJU graduate get to be more liberal than a New Yorker staff writer? I’m really enjoying this!)

The essay isn’t entirely wrong: I accept the idea that something we might call “correct English”—though I’d rather call it “standard English”—is a separate code worth mastering next to what we already say naturally. And I agree that those who want to push the boundaries of language should prove that they’ve mastered their p’s and q’s first.

But it is generally not a copy-editor’s place to tell an author, “This is not correct.” His job should be to gauge the author’s likely audience and his chosen formality level, and help him try to match the two. Usage determines meaning, so I’d rather hear copy-editors saying, “This is not useful.” An author should be allowed to use “like” instead of “such as” when it fits his purposes. But the “that” vs. “which” distinction totally fits with my favoritest quote on my blog ever:

The record plainly shows that most people of all classes customarily make no distinction between disinterested and uninterested or between nauseated and nauseous, yet critics continue to note the alleged differences in urgent or melancholy tones. Such a fastidious attitude serves to mark the critic as belonging to a high social class. The situation is analogous to that of a guest remarking on transposed forks in the place settings at a dinner table. As Dwight Bolinger puts it: “The lielay distinction is fragile and impractical, and the price of maintaining it is too high. But that is exactly what makes it so useful as a social password: without the advantage of a proper background or proper schooling, you fail.” (p. 256)

If your audience is a set of grammar and usage nerds, “I’m so nauseous” is not useful unless you’re making a joke. But there are situations where it might be useful, better even than the “correct” wording. I can think of one: let’s imagine that your friend says at the amusement park, “I’m so nauseous!” It’s not useful to say, “I’m nauseated, too!”—because you just corrected your friend in front of others. You just declared to all present, “This individual does not know the password. He’s not one of us.” That’s not nice. One of my other favorite quotes on language, from Ammon Shea, is also apropos:

I think it delightful that language can engender such passion. At the same time, I find the tendency to belittle people for verbal slights to be quite distasteful. I frequently hear people pointedly aver that they “care about language,” which to me is simply a polite way of saying “I like to correct the language use of other people.” We all care about language, some of us more than others, but the degree to which one is willing to humiliate or upbraid others should not stand as an indication of how much one cares. (xiii)

Language is a tool; arbitrary and inflexible rules don’t do a good job of helping me use language in all the situations in which I find myself. At the very least, I must permit others to “break” the “rules” without arrogantly assuming that they have just revealed their stupidity.

I don’t know why people have such a hard time coming over to the descriptivist side. It’s like there’s a moral blockade. It’s like people who simply cannot stomach Piper’s “Christian hedonism” or Lewis’ “true myth.” I respect their consciences and will try not to rub these usages in their faces, but it is annoying to be tsk-tsked when you know that you’re not doing anything wrong.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

3 thoughts on “I’m with Pinker”

  1. I think your dander got the better of you there. Heller’s argument is reasonable: the rules of standard English facilitate communication. This doesn’t mean that there are cases in which it is useful to break them. It doesn’t mean that different sub-cutures and regions won’t vary them. But there is a purpose for them.

    This seems to me to fit into a broader observation about culture and customs. As a conservative I value the customs of my culture. This does not mean that I think that some are not in need of reform, but it is because custom facilitates cultural interaction. A common cultural life becomes more difficult if you’re always trying to calibrate what the right response is in a given situation because the customs of a culture have dissolved.

    Now one could argue that many cultural customs are neither not “correct” or “incorrect.” People bow in Japan and they shake hands in the US. Fine. But that doesn’t mean that customs of showing respect in greeting are not necessary and everyone should just do as they please. I recall an article in First Things that noted that the adepts in a culture can handle that kind of fluidity, but the majority is harmed by it.

    Far from being oppressive, this kind of preservation of custom is a way of loving my neighbor because it facilitates the functioning of a society. To say this is not prescriptivism, and Heller isn’t arguing for prescriptivism. But he is pointing out that standard English has a significant cultural purpose that should be valued rather than dismantled.

  2. I don’t disagree with the substance of what you say.

    I never think people should simply use locutions as they please; I think, too, that they should use locutions that please their neighbors. Standard English has a significant cultural purpose that should be valued and not dismantled.

    I simply wish for as many people as possible, and pretty much all educated people, to be taught to ask and answer the question, “How does the dictionary know?” In my experience, very few people have ever asked that question. It is too much to expect all English speakers to understand where the standard comes from—namely the usage of educated people. But those educated people should know. I don’t actually wish for anything in standard, respectable English to change. I simply wish for people to understand the way words work so they can think clearly about meaning in the world and meaning in the Bible. If they think “the rules” of speech and grammar have an independent existence, it’s hard for them to do exegesis of the word or the world. I do think there are standards of beauty which stand above even “the rules,” but those standards seem to me to have more to do with sentence and paragraph construction than with the kinds of fights over individual word choice (“hopefully,” “nauseated,” “that” vs. “which,” etc.) that I generally associate with Heller’s attitude.

  3. Sure, but the reason I joked that your dander had gotten the better of you was that I don’t think Heller has an attitude that cuts against your goals. What he’s doing is looking at things from a different perspective. If it’s wrong to look down on certain people or groups for improper English, it’s also unhelpful to beat the drum so hard that there are no rules that people who are less skilled in language really don’t know where to start.

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